Gypsum, Cairo

When Gypsum opened in 2013, the model of the international commercial art gallery did not really exist in Egypt. Since that days Aleya Hamza is working on building up her gallery for an international audience in a city that is off the beaten track.

Gypsum, Cairo

What brought you into contemporary art in the first place?

An MA in Twentieth Century Art from Goldsmiths College in 2000 in London shifted my thoughts on arts and culture. This was followed by an intense period of working as a curator in non-profit institutions in Cairo. Back then, the non-profits were heavily funded by international donors and many of them stepped in to play the role of the state, which had failed to provide a constructive platform for art education and cultural production.

Tell us about the origins of your gallery. What inspired you to open a gallery?

When Gypsum opened in 2013, the model of the international commercial art gallery did not exist in Egypt although the non-profit scene had been thriving for more than a decade. I had already been involved with a wonderful group of artists whose work had been shown in major institutions and biennials but did not have gallery representation. It was important for me to keep working with them, but outside the non-profit paradigm, which by then was facing a serious funding crisis. Paradoxically, the commercial model was a means for bypassing the agenda of both the state and funding entities.

Can you tell us about the art and cultural scene in Cairo?

There is an audience for progressive and challenging work but the market is extremely conservative.

What kind of space and location have you chosen for your gallery?

Cairo is an enormous and sprawling metropolis, so from the outset it was crucial to stay close to Downtown at the epicenter of the cultural life of the city. The gallery is a converted residential ground floor apartment in a beautiful old building from the 1920’s. With high ceilings, large windows and original parquet flooring, it is quite a classical exhibition space that has proven to be surprisingly versatile.

Tell us about your program and the artists you represent.

We put on an average of 5 shows in addition to 3 to 4 fairs presentations every year, mostly in Europe. Gallery artists’ shows tend to feature new bodies of work and we are absolutely committed to supporting new directions in their practices. At the moment, we represent eleven artists. If there is a common thread, I would say that their approach to art production is investigative and research-based, often drawing on academic or theoretical positions.

How do you decide to add a new artist?

When we sign up with an artist, we are in it for the long haul. So, the courting process tends to be quite long. Typically, we would regularly meet, email, Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp – depending on location – to get acquainted while we work on a show or art fair. If the chemistry is right, and we share the same vision, we formalize the relationship.

What has been the biggest challenge in opening and running your own gallery?

Initially it was having to rewire my brain to compute the commercial aspect of running a space that survives on sales. At the moment, it is more about sustaining an international audience and collector base while operating out of a city that is off the beaten track.

How would you describe the role of a gallery in the art world today?

To drive the careers of its artists in a positive direction. But it is vital to do this within a well-conceived program that maintains a strong and relevant curatorial vision.

Is there someone who particularly influenced you?

For about 3 or 4 years, I worked very closely with a Hungarian curator named Edit Molnar. She had recently completed the De Appel curatorial program, and moved to Cairo to work as the director of the Contemporary Image Collective. She was very passionate, and informed the way I see the role of institutions in shaping discourse, the responsibility of commissioning new work by artists, and the relationship between artist and curator. I’m very much indebted to her in my practice as a gallerist, which I see as an extension of my earlier curatorial work.

How do you see your gallery in a decade?

Having the luxury of producing ambitious shows for my artists, and having a number of dedicated patrons.